by Julie Zimmerman, Archives Intern
On July 23, 1997, Chief Humphrey Idisi seized the merchant vessel MV Dubai Valour. Hit by severe weather off the coast of Durban, South Africa, the MV Dubai Valour, transporting used oil-drilling equipment from India to Chief Idisi, lost some of its cargo overboard. The insurance company representing the Dubai estimated the value of the lost equipment at approximately $200,000 to $250,000. Chief Idisi claimed that the loss was between $5 and $17 million.
Chief Idisi, a tribal leader in Nigeria’s Delta region, held the ship and its Ukrainian crew hostage in an attempt to extort his demands from the shipowner. The shipowner’s insurance company eventually obtained an order by the Nigerian High Court to release the ship and the crew after posting $1 million security. Chief Idisi refused to obey the High Court’s order and forcibly resisted attempts by Russian diplomats, acting on behalf of Ukraine, to serve the High Court order and release the crew. In September 1997, 23 of the crewmembers were released. The remaining four crewmembers—the master, chief mate, chief engineer and radio officer—remained hostage on the ship in the port of Sapele deep in the Nigeria Delta region without proper medical care, access to food or clean water, or visitors for more than 18 months.
The Seamen’s Church Institute’s (SCI) Center for Seafarers’ Rights (CSR) became involved in the case in September 1998 at the request of the Secretary General of the United Nations who had received a letter from the wives of the Ukrainian hostages appealing for help. The CSR team of Director Douglas B. Stevenson, Staff Attorney Nina Gupta, and Edda Kristjansdottir, Associate Attorney at the former international law firm Leboeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, spearheaded efforts to assist the shipowner’s attorneys. (Leboeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae provided extensive pro-bono support to CSR on this case.)
The CSR team made numerous appeals to governmental authorities and non-governmental organizations to gain the crew’s release, including filing cases on behalf of each crewmember to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The complaints alleged that Nigeria—through Chief Idisi—had violated several international conventions including the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages (1979), Article 1, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), Article 11 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Early in 1999, CSR obtained approval from Malta, the MV Dubai Valour’s flag state, to file a case on its behalf to the International Tribunalfor the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg. The CSR team prepared a complaint against Nigeria alleging violations of the Law of the Sea Convention.
In May 1999, shortly after Stevenson gave an advance copy of the complaint to the Nigerian High Commissioner in London, the MV Dubai Valour and its crew were released. The first message sent by the vessel’s master after sailing out of Nigerian waters was to Stevenson:
Dear Mr. Douglas Stivenson,
Please be informed that four Ukrainean seafarers, which had been 24 month without a break and shore leaving under illegal arrest on board MV Dubai Valour FOC of Malta flag in Nigeria are FREE and now ALL RIGHT!
… It is clear that our FREEDOM was allowed due to a series of action that had been organized by you and your crew staff.
Best regards. All Ukrainian crew members.
A. Shulgin, Master of the MV Dubai Valour
In a speech delivered in 1999 to the Meeting of States Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Stevenson reflected on the MV Dubai Valour case:
While rejoicing that the men have returned home safe and free, we are ashamed that in this day and age, innocent seamen could be held hostage for a commercial claim in brutal conditions, deprived of their families, friends and normal living for almost two years in defiance of the rule of law and humanity while the law and the community of nations stood by powerless to come to their aid.
Stevenson concluded with a call for all maritime nations to “return to our roots in maritime law and refocus our attention on protecting the men and women whose workplace is the sea.”
Read more about the Center for Seafarers’ Rights here.